The problem of sensible and effective fiberglass disposal is well documented, and proven technological and regulatory solutions are available. So why does practical end-of-life disposal for old composite boats remain elusive?
It’s 2021 and we are still trying to figure out how to best deal with derelict fiberglass boats. In the United States and many other countries, the immediately practical answer is to chop them up and cart them to the landfill despite the considerable recyclable material in each boat. It’s like those clear polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) boxes that protect our prewashed greens; the technology exists to recycle them and they are labeled as such, but when the arugula is gone, in most jurisdictions there’s no market for the material, so they’re simply cut up and trashed. Plastic can be fantastic, but when it comes to end-of-life processing, not so much.
Rereading Eric Sponberg’s prescient 1999 article about this very topic, “Recycling Dead Boats” (Professional BoatBuilder No. 60), it is disappointing that despite grand promises and clever ideas, not much has changed. Old glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) hulls keep piling up in harbors, backyards, boatyards, and landfills, perhaps because the central issues are stubborn: Fiberglass laminates are long-lasting, difficult to disassemble, and have scant value as recovered material. There’s no happy second coming for GRP like there is for steel, aluminum, glass, or paper, which are part of an established recycling industry that turns old material (e.g., beer bottles, soda cans, and shipping boxes) into new products. In practice, none of these cycles is completely self-sustaining, often requiring the addition of virgin material with each use cycle.
It’s possible to reuse or downcycle fiberglass composites by grinding them up, burning the attached resin as fuel, or using the ground laminate or reclaimed fiber as filler material. None of the processes is highly profitable, which means the best hope for old GRP boats is to separate materials like metals and wood for scrap. The old fiberglass hulls were designed and built for durability, not reuse. By and large, the life of a fiberglass boat remains a linear affair, starting with the extraction of the crude oil that’s refined into the materials used to build it. Decades later, those petroleum-based products invariably end up in the dump or abandoned. When left in a creek, bay, or marina, derelict boats become environmental hazards. The basic formula behind this regrettable trend is best expressed as:
Resale Value < Cost of Proper Disposal = Abandonment
With fines little more than a slap on the wrist, there’s no effective deterrent to abandonment. In the U.S. alone, thousands of unwanted boats clutter and pollute public waterways. It could be a different story if boats, like cars, were subjected to inspections to ensure their soundness, and aging craft were tracked, so they could be decommissioned and taken out of circulation before they become a leaky reservoir of toxic substances. But even if such a policy were adopted, it still wouldn’t address the cost of responsible disposal.
Searching for Economic Viability
Following discussion of end-of-life management of fiberglass boats as part of the London Convention and London Protocol in 2016, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) commissioned a study to review options for boat disposal and recycling with special focus on small island developing states (SIDS) with limited resources and disposal options. It published its findings in a 2019 report called “End-of-Life Management of Fibre Reinforced Plastic Vessels: Alternatives to At Sea Disposal.”
Over the years, work in this field includes multiple reports concluding that, at present, there is no viable financial market for the resulting material, because it is not especially useful or valuable. (See also: Dead Boats: Headache or Opportunity) Hence, the most common disposal strategy in most countries, including the U.S., has been the landfill. Only where regulatory pressure prohibits this practice are other solutions being developed and implemented. “Whilst financially viable options are currently limited, the market is being developed with crushed FRP material being used in…concrete, tarmac, and also as filler for other FRP items,” the IMO report states. “The market is well intentioned, though as a cost model appears to have limited application.” Technical solutions for recovering fibers and resin exist—pyrolysis, where material is burned to recover fibers for reuse (resins are lost in combustion), and solvolysis, where chemical replacement releases resins and fibers—but as the IMO notes, “These processes are expensive and not fully commercially viable at present.” As we shall see in Part 2 of this series, efforts are under way to find solutions and scale them to make them economical. Money, as usual, is the sticking point: Who’s picking up the tab? Right now, it’s taxpayers. While the profits of building new boats remain private, the cost of cleaning up end-of-life boats is socialized. But in some places, that’s changing. In France, for instance, industry shares the burden by assuming end-of-life responsibility for boats by financing a nonprofit to remove, dismantle, and dispose of old fiberglass boats, a process also supported by an environmental tax.
Drowning in Fiberglass
The growing problem of fiberglass disposal goes far beyond the boatbuilding industry and has global implications. In the U.S., GRP demand rose by 1.7% in 2019 to 2.6 billion lbs (1.18 million t), according to the “2020 State-of-the-Industry Report,” published in Composites Manufacturing Magazine. That is expected to climb to 3 billion lbs (1.367 million t) by 2025, pending adjustments for the effects of COVID-19. After six consecutive years of growth in GRP production, European demand flattened to 1.141 million t (2.5 billion lbs) in 2019, according to a report published by AVK, the German Federation of Reinforced Plastics. GRP accounts for well over 90% of reinforced plastics/composites production, with two-thirds destined for the transport and construction industries, followed by sporting/leisure goods and the electric/electronics industry, each with approximately 15% of market share.
These numbers pale in comparison to China’s GRP production, which in recent years exceeded 60% of the world’s total output, according to Ray Liang, PhD, director and chief scientist of the i-Center for Composites. Annual production capacity in China exceeded 5.5 million metric tons (12 billion lbs) for the past several years, but composite shipments in 2018 declined 3.15% to 4.3 million metric tons (9.5 billion lbs). They fell another 8.5% from January through September 2019, largely because the government imposed tighter regulations, as Liang reported, to promote innovation, productivity, waste reduction, and more efficient management. They forced many producers to close shop.
I asked John McKnight, Senior Vice President, Environmental Health and Safety at the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), what plans and initiatives exist in the U.S. to address GRP boat disposal. We talked about old boats abandoned because owners die, or people with grand dreams of buying boats to fix them up fall short. McKnight: “Problem is, marinas and boatyards get stuck with all these derelict boats, and they can’t do anything with them unless they have title. The top priority is putting together a mechanism…to change the law.” (For information on rebuilding titles, see Reuel Parker’s Rebuilding Titles: 5 Steps.)
We discussed the regulatory restrictions of Europe that made disposal of fiberglass in the landfill illegal in some countries and spurred alternative approaches and solutions. And we touched on funding, or the lack thereof, for agencies tasked with collecting derelict and abandoned boats, cleaning them up, and turning them over to a processor. Among boatbuilders and the broader composites manufacturing industry, it seems there’s plenty of awareness of the problem but not yet a sense of urgency to systematically fix it. “The American Composite Manufacturers Association contacted me a while back and asked the same questions about addressing the recycling of fiberglass,” McKnight said. “They are thinking about it, and we are too, but it hasn’t been on the top of our agenda.”
You’re Always Welcome at the Dump
“Surprisingly, landfills are not the worst place to send fiberglass, since most of them are vault types, which are not supposed to leach,” explained Aaron Barnett from the Washington State Sea Grant, an organization that helps fund that state’s efforts to remove derelict vessels from the environment.
Just how many legacy boats are derelict and need to be dealt with is not easy to determine. In 2019, prior to the recent COVID-induced boat-buying boom, there were approximately 11.88 million recreational vessels registered in the U.S., according to recreational boating statistics, one million fewer than at the peak, in 2007. How many of that one million are derelict is difficult to say. According to the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association (RIMTA), “Between 2003 and 2012 an estimated 1.5 million recreational craft were retired in the U.S…. This rate of disposal is not expected to slow down, as many first-generation fiberglass boats (launched 1970s–90s) have begun to reach their end-of-life status.” Running with this estimate and assuming that a similar number of boats might have reached retirement age since 2012, we’d be looking at approximately 3 million end-of-life boats in the U.S. in the past 20 years.
I called a couple of landfills around Portland, Oregon, about discarding a (fictitious) 20‘ (6.1m) fiberglass vessel. Within five minutes I had all the information I needed and got a lesson in American efficiency and customer service. No surprise, because trash is big business, generating revenues that grew from $39.4 billion in 2000 to $63.4 billion in 2017 and are forecast to reach $81 billion by 2023. “Come by. We take boats all the time,” a friendly attendant at a transfer station advised. “There’s a fee of $150 for the demolition and then it’s $123.95 for the first 2,000 lbs of boat weight.” The Metro dump had some size restrictions. “It goes with the regular garbage, so you have to cut it in half or chop off the ends to make it fit into our compactor, which can take only pieces up to 12‘ in length,” another attendant informed me. Cost is $28 for the first 360 lbs, then $98 for every additional ton. What about engine, oil, and other fluids? “You would have to remove that. Motor is free, because it’s metal, but you need to take the fluids to hazardous waste. We’re here 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.” Any concerns about problems that fiberglass might cause in the landfill? No, none.
The Coprocessing Alternative
That doesn’t mean there’s no role for methods and processes that help get rid of fiberglass waste while also yielding environmental benefits. One is cement-kiln coprocessing, where ground-up fiberglass waste helps reduce the carbon footprint of the cement industry. Coprocessing has been in use in Europe, where the wind industry is big and the landfills are small, and GRP waste would be piling up sky-high.
“In my mind the best benefit is to air quality,” Barnett said. “When cement kilns use an alternative fuel as opposed to tires and other petroleum products, net CO2 emissions are reduced dramatically.” The European Composites Industry Association (EUCIA) explains: “By using composite regrind in coprocessing, a significant reduction of CO2 emission of the clinker manufacturing process can be obtained. Depending on the quantity of composite regrind included and the specific cement plant technology, the reduction can be as high as 16%.”
In 2016, when researching their best course of action for a program called Rhode Island Fiberglass Vessel Recycling (RIFVR), Rhode Island Sea Grant and RIMTA consulted with several European outfits that develop waste management solutions for decommissioned wind-turbine-rotor blades and other plastic and GRP products such as pultrusion profiles, tanks, pipes, circuit boards, truck spoilers, sinks, cable ducts, and boxes.
In 2019 RIMTA and the 501(c)3 RIMTA Foundation completed the first phase of a pilot project that examined and verified the viability of cement-kiln coprocessing for end-of-life fiberglass boat hull material. Partners included 111th Hour Racing, Association of Marina Industries, BoatU.S. Foundation, Brunswick Marine, Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corp., Rhode Island Dept. of Environmental Management, J.R. Vinagro Corp. (waste management service), Geocycle/LafargeHolcim Cement (kiln coprocessing), and a handful of boatyards. As the NMMA’s McKnight pointed out, the yards have had to deal with abandoned derelict boats clogging marina slips while running up the tab in unpaid fees and taxes.
In the RIMTA pilot, six boatyards contributed 22 boats of varying sizes and types from across Rhode Island. Before shipping them to Vinagro’s facility, the yards removed metals, oils, fuel, and batteries and recovered valued components such as engines and rigging. Next, the hulks were cut up and crushed by heavy machinery and fed into a horizontal grinder. “We process that material down to a 2“ [50mm] mixture for use by the cement industry,” RIMTA’s project director, Evan Ridley, said.
Material consistency and volume are critical to quality control in industrial production. It’s no different in coprocessing, so approved materials are blended with others to ensure the desired consistency. Given the diversity in fiberglass composite hulls going into the grinder, this step makes sense. Ridley: “That mixture sometimes maybe contains [only] 40% fiberglass, while the rest of it is balsa wood or foam core or other ancillary components of hull construction…. Early on we went through a pretty thorough laboratory analysis process with one of our partners to determine that stuff…in that mixture wasn’t going to cause any red flags from a [alternative material] value standpoint.” The ground-up fibers were loaded into an open trailer, which made the 900-mile trip to the Geocycle facility in Dorchester, South Carolina, where it was blended with other nonhazardous components from a variety of sources to be used as fuel for LafargeHolcim’s cement kiln in Holly Hill, South Carolina.
“Alternative fuels replace coal, petroleum coke, and natural gas, which are common sources for heating process cement kilns. To utilize them, the facility needs approval from state and local permitting authorities and a feed system to introduce the materials into the kilns,” said Kelly Brown, a spokeswoman of LafargeHolcim. “The next step is to evaluate the fuels for acceptance, not only with the permits but also [for] our cement manufacturing process. Most regulatory constraints are around the requirements as a fuel, such as how it will be handled while on-site and also other limits, such as heat value.” The caloric value of the blend has to approximate that of the traditional coal mix it replaces, Brown explained. “So keeping the heat value in that same range of ~11,000 British thermal units [Btu]/lb or more is preferred. To ensure good combustion, and meet our regulatory permitting, the material must [offer] greater than 5,000 Btu/lb.”
Lastly, who pays for coprocessing: the waste/fuel supplier or the cement manufacturer? “There are a lot of equipment, operational, and regulatory requirements as well as data collection and documentation systems to handle alternative materials,” Brown noted. “Because of this, we must charge the supplier for this green solution.”
Here’s how cement-kiln coprocessing works. In cement manufacturing, raw materials such as limestone, clay, aluminum oxide, iron, shale, and silica (along with lighter components separated from crude oil during its distillation) are combined with an energy source and heated up to 2,642°F (1,450°C) to make clinkers, which serve as the binder in cement products. Clinkers consist of calcium oxide (65%), silicon oxide or silica (20%), aluminum oxide (10%), and iron oxide (5%). Gypsum (calcium sulfate) and possibly additional cementitious compounds (such as blast furnace slag, coal fly ash, etc.), or inert materials like limestone are added to the clinkers. All constituents are then ground into a fine homogenous powder we call cement. The EUCIA paper calls glass fiber thermoset regrind an “ideal raw material for cement manufacturing. The mineral composition of the regrind is consistent with the optimum ratio between calcium oxide, silica, and aluminum oxide. Additionally, the organic fraction (i.e., resin) supplies fuel for the reaction heat, resulting in a significant reduction of CO2 emission.”
Based on discussions with Geocycle, RIMTA suggests that fiberglass waste could be introduced at several different stages of cement production, including the pretreatment of limestone in a kiln’s calcination tower. Fiberglass waste would be used primarily as a resource for heating and activating limestone as it moves through the tower. The constituent elements found in the ash of fiberglass waste (silica, alumina, etc.) would follow the limestone into the collective kiln feed and be encapsulated in the final product.
A document furnished by RIMTA to explain cement kiln function says Geocycle expressed interest in exploring pneumatic injection of fiberglass and other size-reduced waste directly into the arc of the kiln flame to provide a direct source of energy and thermal retention. The remaining constituent elements trapped inside the ash would become incorporated into the clinkers. One kiln in Northampton, Pennsylvania, is equipped for that procedure and expressed interest in fiberglass waste.
RIMTA broke down the cost structure of Phase One by order of magnitude: 59.1% ($500/ton) for shredding the vessels, which on average were 21‘ in length and yielded 1.4 t of material; 13% ($1.91/mile) for kiln delivery of the shredded material; 12.1% ($3.75/mile) for in-state transportation of boats from yards to the collection site; 8.4% ($65/ton) of kiln acceptance fees; and 7.4% ($20/hour) for prep/dismantling of boats. “In consideration of the average Phase One candidate [boat] (21.0 ft/6.4m, 1.4 t/3,100 lbs), current calculations indicate a total [disposal] cost of $1,136 per boat,” the report stated. “Excluding costs incurred by the participating marine industry businesses (preparations/dismantling and in-state transport), a general RIFVR acceptance fee can be deduced. That acceptance fee basis is $924 per boat, or approximately $44 per foot.” RIMTA indicated these numbers are merely a snapshot derived from the pilot and are subject to change as the program evolves.
One possibility to scale coprocessing could be a cross-platform approach combining similar waste streams, like those of old fiberglass boats and fiberglass wind-turbine-rotor blades that will be retired in large numbers around the world. WindEurope estimates around 14,000 blades could be de-commissioned by 2023, comprising between 40,000 and 60,000 tons of fiberglass. “If we can get the volume up as they’ve done in Europe with [decommissioned] wind turbine [blades], we’re hoping that we can see both sides of that process,” Ridley added.
Geocycle GmbH, an affiliate of Holcim (Germany) AG, which focuses on coprocessing of decommissioned wind blades with an annual processing capacity of 40,000 metric tons, stated that they select “previously audited GRP material (i.e., certain rotor wings of wind turbines), which does not include boat hulls.”
Blending ground boat hulls with other end-of-life fiberglass products to create a reliable and acceptable material supply for cement kiln use requires significant effort. “We’ve realized important things, not only for the short-term viability of recycling composites but for the long-term viability of a program like this,” Ridley said. “Presenting a consistent mixture of material to the end user builds a level of reliability that ultimately can influence the economics in a positive way,” he explained. “Producing a high volume of material and demonstrating that the makeup of that material never changes make the recycling job much easier. Looking at 40 years of boat construction and establishing a core group of materials that are compatible with recycling processes and are more predictable at their end of life would certainly help everyone.”
Scaling a coprocessing scheme for old fiberglass boats to a regional or national level will require a herculean effort on many fronts: collection, dismantling, crushing, grinding, and processing. But with buy-in from key stakeholders, the right incentives, and an educational push to change attitudes and behaviors, it is not out of reach, as we’ll discover in Part 2 of this series. Manufacturers, of course, are not oblivious to the benefits of sustainability and are quick to point to initiatives they have implemented or are in the process of introducing. Improving efficiencies, reducing waste and water consumption, incorporating recycled materials, switching to renewable energy, education and community support are typical talking points that echo Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, the 2009 book by Ray Anderson, the late CEO of carpet manufacturer Interface, which embraced sustainability to boost profitability.
In his 2020 IBEX presentation, Kevin Grodzki, boat-manufacturing giant Brunswick’s now-retired vice president of communications and public affairs, listed similar sustainability initiatives and also mentioned end-of-life boats and producer responsibility. Grodzski: “Customers are going to hold us accountable…. There will be a right time and a right place for the implementation of new designs and technologies and new formulations, but in the meantime we have an aging base of material. I believe that it’s going to be incumbent upon the industry to step in and make a difference.”
Brunswick, a sponsor of the RIMTA project, did not provide details or a sketch of what such a program could look like for a multinational company responsible to shareholders who might like to see solutions that consider the end of a product at the time of its manufacture. Some questions that come to mind: How much of an old boat or motor could find use in a new one? How do you design, engineer, and build mass-produced boats with renewable composite materials and resins, like some builders are exploring? (See also “The Quest for Cleaner Composites,” PBB No. 188.) Or how can smaller builders participate and benefit?
“The evolution will be driven more by innovation and technology, to some degree by regulation,” Grodzki said. “I believe it is incumbent upon every healthy industry to take control of its own destiny. In my judgment I would like to see less of it driven by regulation and more…by initiative, because it is the right thing to do.”
One initiative that impressed political leaders was the RIFVR pilot. In late August 2020, a joint press release by Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation, led by U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, announced a $105,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program Foundation “to expand Rhode Island’s innovative fiberglass boat recycling program across New England and to the State of Washington.”
Before old boats can disappear into the landfill or the cement kiln, they must be salvaged, detoxed, and dismantled. It’s the first, most important, and costliest step in disposal. “Abandoned fiberglass boats are releasing toxins and microplastics across the world,” wrote Corina Ciocan, senior lecturer in marine biology at the University of Brighton, in Marine Technology News. “Some say that dumped fiberglass boats will make suitable artificial reefs. However, very little research has been done on at-sea disposal and the worry is that eventually these boats will degrade and move with the currents and harm the coral reefs, ultimately breaking up into microplastics.” Those microparticles harm mangrove, seagrass, coral habitats, and marine life and eventually get into the food chain, exposing humans to chemicals that have been associated with ADHD, breast cancer, obesity, and male fertility issues. Ciocan also points out high concentrations of copper, zinc, and lead found in sediment samples and small marine organisms exposed to peeling paints of abandoned boats nearby. Other health hazards attributed to abandoned boats can come from rubber, plastic, wood, metal, textiles, and oil on board. Especially dangerous contaminants include asbestos insulation, classified neurotoxins from corrosion-inhibiting lead paints and mercury-based compounds, and tributyltin (TBT), a now widely banned antifouling agent.
Seeking to understand the status quo and the challenges on the front lines, I checked in with Troy Wood, who manages the Derelict Vessel Removal Program (DVRP) at the Aquatic Resources Division of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “We wish we could remove all derelict and abandoned vessels from the waters of the state, but we are limited by the resources appropriated to the program through the legislature,” Wood explained. “The DVRP is considered the last resort when dealing with a vessel [even though] its owner is ultimately responsible.”
The 2002 Washington State Legislature passed the Derelict Vessel Act, which provides certain local and state agencies with the authority and funding for the removal and disposal of derelict and abandoned vessels from state waters. The DVRP has a two-year budget of $2.5 million funded by recreational vessel registration and commercial vessel fees and revenue from state-owned aquatic leases.
One challenge is coordinating the capabilities and authorities of the different federal agencies that may respond to reports of derelict vessels. Prior to 2002, DNR had to rely on the vessel owners’ cooperation or face lengthy legal procedures, including trespass and nuisance abatement actions, and federal actions to address derelict vessels. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers have federal authority to deal with derelict and abandoned vessels, but their responsibilities differ. The USCG handles substantial pollution threats or threats to federal navigation channels. It removes pollutants and offending vessels that obstruct channels, if necessary. The Coast Guard does not have authority to remove and dispose of a vessel once the immediate threat has been addressed. The Corps removes floating or sunken debris but only if it’s a hazard to navigation in a federally maintained navigation channel.
The DVRP removed 924 derelict or abandoned vessels statewide dating back to 2003 and has a current inventory of approximately 235 listed as vessels of concern. “We are averaging around 100 [boats] and are currently at 60 removed for this biennium,” Wood said. “With limited resources we have to prioritize the vessels [posing a] high risk to human safety or the environment. It is becoming more expensive to remove and dispose of vessels every year. Contractor and landfill costs are on the rise, as well as the sizes of vessels needing to be removed.”
The average salvage cost for a recreational vessel, Wood said, is about $10,000 to $12,000, while derelict commercial vessels can cost between $30,000 and $400,000, depending on size, location, and circumstances. It’s an uphill battle with only three staff, none of whom is trained on the heavy equipment required for most dismantling or demolition. Time and capacity constraints require the DVRP to hire contractors, Wood added.
If hazardous materials on a boat exceed landfill limits, Wood and his staff remove the contaminants or find a landfill willing to accept the material. Hazardous material removal is very costly and accounts for much of the cost of removing commercial vessels. Wood said, “The DVRP looked into other sources of funding, but we have not been able to find a source that garnered general support.”
The Voluntary Approach
I found some good news in Washington State in the form of the DNR’s voluntary Vessel Turn-in Program (VTiP), which started in 2014 and dismantles boats less than 45‘ “that do not yet satisfy the definition of derelict or abandoned, but are likely to become derelict or abandoned in the near future,” the DNR website explains. In 2020 the Washington State Legislature lifted the program’s rather small spending cap of $200,000, so it can remove more boats before they become abandoned or derelict, with priority based on threats to human safety or the environment. To stretch the budget until June 2021, the VTiP, which also receives funding and promotional support from WA Sea Grant, has to batch the disposal projects based on priority level and location. The $4,000 average removal cost per boat tallied for the VTiP is much lower than for the DVRP.
Looking past salvage and dismantling, bringing the cement kiln coprocessing program to the State of Washington has been slowed by the COVID pandemic, WA Sea Grant’s Barnett said. “$100,000 were set aside for [a] research budget, but the Governor vetoed it last summer.” And there are other hurdles: A suitable chipper has to be found, and safety issues must be addressed after a processing test sent one employee to the ER with severe particulate irritation. “A market-based solution will emerge when the time is right,” Barnett concluded. “The infrastructure is available…. It’s baby steps right now. But they are going in the right direction.”
Until that market-based solution emerges, prompted by financial expedience or regulatory prodding, it appears that the most likely course for dead old boats is to follow our recyclable plastic salad boxes into the landfill, where they’ll get bulldozed with the rest of our garbage.
In PBB No. 190, Part 2 of this series will cover ideas, opinions, and solutions in other countries grappling with the disposal of end-of-life fiberglass boats.